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This article is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.

On Harold Bloom
Poetry, Psyche, God, Mortality
David Rosenberg
The abundant ironies and critiques of literary fashion that enrich the unique writing style of Harold Bloom are glossed over by Zachary Leader in a recent Times Literary Supplement review of a suddenly posthumous book. The occasion is Bloom’s ‘last book’ at age eighty-nine  – though Bloom attested to a multitude of last books, starting at seventy-four, with his premonitions of health problems and mortality that were typical for his age. Of these last books, The American Canon, thoughtfully edited by David Mikics, is probably not the best. Yet it shouldn’t take long before Bloom’s historical competition rises into view; Leopardi, Samuel Johnson and the literary Freud among them.

In his review, Leader glosses over the substantive Bloomian texts which the title of the posthumous book encodes: The American Religion (1992) and The Western Canon (1995).  Bloom himself, in this last ‘last book’, laments the lack of literary attention to the former, and the scarce consideration of the spiritual dimension to the latter. Both dimensions are first addressed in unison in The Book of J (1990), though the seeds were planted in Bloom’s early studies of Milton, Blake and Yeats.

Leader writes that Bloom’s ‘appetite for words, coupled with a prodigious memory, lucrative book deals and his own eventual enthronement in the critical canon, made Bloom a central literary figure for the age’. This sounds generous at first, but look more closely: Bloom’s critical acumen, built upon a complex aesthetic of psychological as well as historical perspective, is hardly recognized by an ‘appetite for words’. His ‘lucrative book deals’ were the result of a startling transformation of writing style from elaborate litcrit to popular vernacular: it seemed to whisper plainly into the ear of the general reader without losing much of his intricate thought.

As for his ‘enthronement’; goodness! Bloom brought to literary criticism a self-characterization redolent of Falstaff, not Henry. ‘A rather plump and melancholy youth, I turned to him out of need, because I was lonely. Finding myself in him liberated me from a debilitating self-consciousness. He has never abandoned me for three-quarters of a century.’  And, further from his Falstaff: Give Me Life (2017), probably his most poignant of last books: ‘He exposes what is counterfeit in me and in all others.’

It’s useful to unpack a bit more of Leader’s review because the public image of Bloom as a ‘central literary figure for the age’ is too often based upon his legendary teaching persona at Yale rather than a close reading of his books. Not that he didn’t yoke the professorial to the wish for a public spotlight, as in the political avocation (he called it ‘prophecy’) that could over-season his prose. ‘We are living in a dark time’ may be a common locution in academe these days, but this was Bloom in 2007, after it was clear the nation had survived the World Trade Center massacre, and less than a year before Obama’s presidency. Bloom had remained in full BDS (Bush Derangement Syndrome) reaction, not content to refer to the president as ‘an imbecile’ in essays and reviews, even though the forty-third president may have received a passing grade as a student of his at Yale, where Bush not only graduated but went on to a graduate degree from Harvard. (On a personal note concerning this recent era of political apoplexy in the humanities: while we were at Berkeley the year Bush was elected, my wife Rhonda and I sometimes dined out with the late British philosopher Richard Wollheim, also on visiting faculty duty. Richard was beside himself the whole time, faux-interrogating us as to how an ‘illiterate’ like Bush could so intellectually incapacitate America. One answer, quaintly academic, invoked the influence of the literary history of American Puritanism, a required course of the Yale undergraduate curriculum, to explain erstwhile playboy Bush’s long happy marriage to librarian Laura and how it cancelled the previous President Clinton’s sexual exploits and coverup.)

In the same TLS, Elaine Showalter laments that Bloom ‘knew very little about feminist criticism’. Probably true, though he did read and reread women he loved; Emily Dickinson, H.D., and Zora Neale Hurston representing a diversity among them. Yet it is mind-boggling that Showalter fails to mention the great contribution to the history of female authorship, the Yahwist, designated J in biblical scholarship. The Book of J provided as much a provocation to misogyny and male literary dominance as any in the twentieth century, to say nothing of the feathers ruffled in religion departments. I can understand it sounds almost like a joke to assert that the great writer of the early Bible was a woman of ironic temperament who established the basis of biblical history at her post-Solomonic court, but that’s merely a sign of how repressed the memory of human authorship remains. Far from simple speculation, our collaboration provides over three hundred pages of reality-testing evidence that J could be none other than a woman.

In her latest book, The Lost Art of Scripture, Karen Armstrong unfortunately bypasses biblical authorship altogether: ‘Our English word “Scripture” implies a written text, but most Scriptures began as texts that were composed and transmitted orally.’ This is an outdated claim; the word ‘began’ should begin in the biblical author’s written sources. Lear, Hamlet, et.al. also began in old, possibly oral sources, but so what? The problem here is that Armstrong is content to imply that Hebraic literate poets and prose artists, along with their artistic culture and education – drawing upon more than a millennium of written (in cuneiform, Egyptian demotic, etc.) classics – need not be considered. In contrast to Armstrong’s literary incuriosity, another new book, Michael Schmidt’s Gilgamesh, brings the Akkadian written sources clearly into view, including layers of authorship dating back many centuries to the Sumerian Odes in cuneiform tablets – texts that were probably accessible to early Hebraic authors as well.

We need to pause here with The Book of J because it represents the crucial pivot at which Bloom’s academic writing morphed into the popular vernacular. While Leader asserts ‘Bloom’s critical fame rested largely on his book The Anxiety of Influence (1973)’, news of Bloom’s stature did not reach the general reader until The Book of J’s ironic renderings of foundational patriarchs and matriarchs, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. That surprising bestseller presented a way to understand poetry and poetic prose outside the contemporary academic norms. As well, in this first and last published collaboration of Bloom’s, we took Biblical source criticism two human footsteps further by pressing on through the text to characterize the fleshly writers behind it, culminating in the figure of J as a royal court-educated woman. It was fairly in tune with Bloom’s characterizations of major poets, from Chaucer to Ashbery, as personalities with larger cultural concerns, such as Ashbery’s parallel life as an art critic.

Had Armstrong absorbed Bloom’s insights on authorship, she might have resisted her prejudicial claim that the Hebrew Bible repeatedly has God ordering genocides. This was far more likely a literary trope, elaborated from sources that sought to allegorize a monotheistic God’s determination to complete a ‘genocide’ of his own rivals; namely the panoply of pagan gods and idols. We needn’t go so far, however, as to ‘prize the astonishing mystery of creative genius’, as Adam Begley long ago asserted in the New York Times was Bloom’s master plan. In literary terms today, it is not a ‘mystery’ but a poetics of process; a modernist engine Bloom unfortunately seemed to reject, even in Stevens and Ashbery. The term collage eludes him, especially in relation to modern masters for whom dissipation and loss of control are integrated into the work. He would not likely consider how a lyric poem built upon collage and improvisation is nonetheless held together by the non-mysterious gravitational force of meditative focus, as in Sylvia Plath, a poet Bloom avoided, as he did the New York School poets Ted Berrigan and David Shapiro.

I’ve written about my three-year collaboration with Bloom while he was still alive, in A Life in a Poem, yet some excerpts in this posthumous context are newly applicable to an appreciation of his limits as well as his pre-eminence:
It was the strangest thing about Harold, especially as I reflect on it now, that he was almost incapable of punning, especially in informal conversation. He might quote one, from Shakespeare, for instance, but for himself he seemed always to shy away, as if a pun were a kind of poem and that it would imperil his credentials as a critic to be revealed as a poet – or anything less than a major poet. Too bad he couldn’t have become a critic in Yiddish, as if there’d been no Holocaust and the great Jewish language of his and my youth had continued to exfoliate. There his punning would have bloomed, beyond the highly literary sort disguised as irony. He might have merited a Nobel, like Isaac Bashevis Singer, had he become the great Jewish critic.

So Harold was no deconstructionist, and that viewpoint’s wealth of puns, its insistence on punning, as in the poetry of David Shapiro, scared him. He wouldn’t admit to being upset in this way, but rather dismissed Shapiro as not up to the standard of his mentor, Ashbery. To call David a deconstructionist in poetry might be an understatement; his every line recomposed the previous, fearless to employ any pun at any moment. Because he was a close friend of mine, I tried whenever possible to strengthen his case with Harold, insinuating how he was a beloved presence in the ‘Second Generation’ of New York School poets. I was insensitive, however, to how the mere existence of that school – so at home with the pun and with the French modernists who had deeply domesticated it – was in itself the bane of Harold’s role as critic of the latest in contemporary poetry. As I’ve said before, I could not get him to read the New York School masters; O’Hara, Schuyler, and especially Kenneth Koch, whose ingenious punning disturbed him and whose Ivy League position at Columbia enervated him (until, worn down at last, he wrote sympathetically of Koch in the late ’90s). Although Ashbery was also of this school, Harold separated him out as a poet akin to himself, full of strange ironies more grandiose than the lowly pun. Before I’d fully realized this I did Shapiro no little harm in Bloom’s eyes by pointing out Koch as his true mentor. However, I was alert enough not to refer to my own coming to maturity among second generation New York School poets, nor to my having been a student of Koch’s before that.

Keeping this thought to myself, I imagined Marcel Duchamp as a major twentieth-century counterpart to Bloom, the former exerting a greater influence over American artists than Bloom among poets. Yet Bloom was just as concerned to challenge the definition of poetry as Duchamp was of art. ‘I am an experiential and personalizing literary critic’, wrote Bloom, ‘which certainly rouses up enmity, but I go on believing poems matter only if we matter’. This was less in tune with prevailing ambition among MFA and PhD poets than with Virginia Woolf’s ‘insistence that a work cannot be understood without knowledge of the circumstances of its creation’. Cultural context, in other words. Although Bloom lacked sufficient awareness of other contemporary arts, including art, film, music, and dance (‘confined to this hick town of New Haven’, as he once confided), he brought considerable modern context to poetry in the form of his psychological translation of Freud into an account of poetic ambition, as well his personal experience of facing the Holocaust and how lack of it underwrites a contemporary resistance to history. Such contextual thought also led to his wider interest in religion and ancient culture, specifically to The Book of J and J’s literary situation in ancient Jerusalem (with Bloom’s concerns in mind, I went on to point out her cultural surround, from Hebraic sculptors to composers, in later books).

In The American Religion, Bloom compares ‘self-creation’, as elsewhere manifested in the close reading of Walt Whitman, to mythological creation: ‘each of us is subject and object of the one quest, which must be for the original self, a spark or breath in us that we are convinced goes back to before the Creation.’ If Bloom was constantly thinking of self-creation, Duchamp was thinking of its context, physical existence, a surround that requires our artistic awareness of being a created artifact of ourselves. Duchamp was on a mission to ‘break into’ that artifact, whether a painting (the third dimension of ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’) or a theory of breathing. Starting with ‘Fountain’ in 1917, a urinal turned into a sculpture, Duchamp had defined art as a choosing, but later, in a 1965 interview with Pierre Cabanne, he says ‘My art would be that of living; each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral’. Existence, in other words, as rich context.

Bloom, on the other hand, was usually thinking of ‘breaking out’ of existence into the cosmic, whether the supernatural mythos of Blake in London, or in the manner of J in Jerusalem, recording the speech of the monotheistic God. Implicit, of course, was the understanding that the supernatural cosmos is theory, and just as intellectually pregnant as science theory. It needn’t be proved psychologically any more than the interior of a black hole requires physical proof. Beyond Northrup Frye, a precursor, Bloom raised the act of writing literary criticism to the level of cosmic drama – no less than Duchamp had shifted the perspective of an artwork back onto its existential viewer. One might argue the same for Picasso and others, except that Duchamp’s oeuvre points beyond the artistic process of a human creator plumbing consciousness, and toward the species-consciousness of that creator as a Homo sapiens within an evolutionary process.

A word more on process, since it relates to the contemporary poetry which Bloom was averse to access, yet illustrates his personal exodus over the years from modernism. It’s not that he was constitutionally constricted but that he’d found a way within the academic world to express what I can only call a spiritual process – one in blind parallel to the experimental process of American poetry (as well as remaining innocent of a British Bunting). Religious books for Bloom could be not simply poetic but poetry itself; cosmic poetry. It was hardly a matter of being influenced by Milton and Blake. What modern literary critic could you possibly find who would produce a six hundred paged anthology of American Religious Poems (2006)? Bloom is not joking; he’s deadly serious about collecting his usual suspects, including hundreds of pages of living and mostly academic poets demonstrating a prayer-like stance toward a ‘religion’ that is in fact devoutly anti-transcendent. Nevertheless, the poems of Bloom’s contemporary poets read as if plotted – nothing processual, abstract, or post-Avant – hence not a whiff in them of, God forbid, Jesus or God, or even a tenuous relation to Geoffrey Hill.

Instead, Bloom incarnates them as followers of the Whitmanian religion of self-creation. Black Mountain, however, or the New York School, doesn’t exist, with the exception of Ashbery misinterpreted as metaphysical. The Objectivists are reduced to a little poem observing wild deer by Oppen, and one by Reznikoff entitled ‘Spinoza’ – nothing of his volumes of Biblical intertexts. As for the post-Avant and experimental, not even a Jackson Mac Low ‘Light Poem’ (e.g. number thirty-two mourning Paul Blackburn) or the North American epic The Martyrology of bpNichol, let alone Robin Blaser’s The Holy Forest. No whiff of the transcendental air in a Lorine Niedecker, and no Ted Berrigan, so many of whose non-collagist poems, rather than somewhat engaging prayerfulness, resonate as transcendent adorations of daily life. And then there is the egregious ignoring of Gertrude Stein’s astonishing and existentially religious The Making of Americans (only the photographic reading ability of Harold Bloom might have committed its 926 pages to memory).

And yet, none of the present, let alone the missing, could have been collared by anyone but Bloom in service to the ongoing vitality of poetry: namely, his gorgeous elaboration of Whitman and Dickinson as the seeders and binders of an American Canon. That he refused to consider improvisation is probably why he could never write a poem of his own. But also why he took the inspired improvisations of Walt and Emily to be forms of thought more significant than music – and thus able to arrive at the proper determination anyway that their projection of themselves in terms of self-created character was as if open-ended, a boundless energy no poet who followed could, or can, as yet, rival.

Bloom’s introduction to American Religious Poems is, in particular, an apotheosis of Whitman as our American Shakespeare, Dante, Christ, Yahweh, Adam, Blake, Hopkins – all these and more he adumbrates. Bloom also focuses upon how ‘Whitman owed far more to the English Bible than to any particular poet’, especially J’s Yahweh: his ‘I am’ and his ‘Get thee out’ to Abraham (ironically echoing the directive to Adam and Eve, to leave the Garden, and later to the Exodus). But – where to? To an as yet unknown destination, re-echoed in Whitman and his influence on American poets from Hart Crane to Frank O’Hara’s visionary ‘Second Avenue’. For Walt Whitman, the journey had blossomed inward, so that ‘the shores of America matter most to Whitman as points of departure for the outward voyage. [But again, to where?] There is only the grand fourfold: night, death, the mother, and the sea. All of these constitute the unknown nature of which Walt’s soul is composed’.

In fact, Bloom here strives to create a matching Bloomian selfhood as reader, one who is breaking out on a voyaging duet with his time-bound aging self. Yet I fear Harold may have missed the pun on his name in his concluding paragraph: ‘Finally, Whitman is the American difference, the herald to the future.’ There is no Duchampian breaking in, something to be accomplished by turning consciousness inside out, escaping beyond human history to an evolutionary origin. Duchamp’s duet entails an unknown species, one that is abstracted in poetry as improvisation. Meanwhile, our cultural history is repressed, an unconsciously purposeful forgetting, a la Freud. To what end, what progress? A duet with creation is the answer, as it collects one’s art, one’s lifetime of objects, in miniature, placing them in a suitcase as Duchamp did, suggesting an embarkation as a reborn child. Where to? One would love to hear that question debated between Duchamp and Bloom, less with theory than with a wagon full of art and poetry books.

Bloom’s suitcases, however, had so much more textual history in them that an endless stream of porters would be required. And yet, it’s instructive to suggest how he might have looked by traveling with simply a carry-on, like Duchamp’s little suitcase. Still, if we imagine a Duchamp retrospective in another century it is massive; it will have to resemble the current one of Blake at Tate Britain, organized in a contextual framework of Blake’s historical situation. For the experimental modern poets who Bloom generally avoided, Ashbery may serve as stand-in. ‘His mode can vary from the apparently opaque, so disjunctive as to seem beyond interpretation, to a kind of limpid clairvoyance.’ However, the ‘disjunctive’ in Ashbery is often hilarious rather than opaque, its collaging of seemingly overheard snippets a contemporary form of punditry (or of an unattended mind). Yet it can also produce a deep poignance in its failure to alleviate the anxiety of mortality, which is suggested by the sources of either the overheard or the underlying art of, for instance, fragmented body parts, the alphabet or paintings by Holbein (e.g. ‘An Allegory of the Old and New Testaments, 1533-35’) in the contemporary art of Jasper Johns.

Even the way language is out of tune with thought may produce both anxiety and comedy in younger counterparts of Ashbery; e.g. Mark Ford and Susan Wheeler, whom Bloom did find a way to appreciate. Nevertheless, he would be apt to elide the comedy as he did most surprisingly when he judged Rimbaud to be a younger counterpart to Blake: ‘Rimbaud was a great innovator within French Poetry, but he would have seemed less so had he written in the language of Blake and Wordsworth, Browning and Whitman. A Season in Hell comes more than eighty years after The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.’ It’s also likely that were Bloom’s double to return to us in fifty years, his expansive perspective might enfold as well the contemporaries he side-stepped.

In their introduction to the current Blake show’s catalogue, Myrone and Concannon say ‘we think it matters where and when these artworks were created’. Yet much is missing when Blake’s theory of consciousness goes unmentioned. I use ‘theory’ to update ‘myth’, emphasizing that Blake included the bottomless unconscious mind – in such forms as Satan and angels – as vital mirror to the human situation. Forgetting the pull of the unconscious, we put too much stress today on society, on social relations public and private, to interpret such complex behaviour as the making of art. Blake would have made an avid reader of Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of an Infantile Reminiscence. Blake’s own art is portrayed by Bloom as a significant instance of unconscious creative struggle with Milton, comparable to a modern American poet’s struggle with Whitman. In this manner, we might also surmise that Blake’s Emily Dickinson, were she his precursor, would actually be not her, of course, but Michelangelo.

Speaking for the moment of duets, and as much as he digs deeper than anyone could expect into Stevens and Frost, Bloom retained a blind spot regarding modernism up until his end. He recognizes it, of course, and justifies his aversion by pointing to modernism’s displeasure with history, its delight in fragmentation and flouting of tradition. Although it would seem Bloom enjoyed similar traits, starting with his pushing of Blake to the forefront (it’s worth remembering that most everyone from Pound and Eliot to Stevens and Auden were ambivalent about Blake), what he found in him was of a piece with Shakespeare; namely a confrontation with not only the full scope of human history (one could cite Pound’s sweep from ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese poetry, on through the Troubadours and Dante, to Yeats and an ephebe in Olson) but the dimensions of the psyche. For Bloom, a civilizational sweep such as Pound’s also swept under the rug the psychological price of rebellion against the humanistic history based in the Bible. ‘My “favourite” remark of his, humanly and critically’, said Bloom of Pound, ‘comes from his letters: “All the Jew part of the Bible is black evil.”‘ But it’s not a critical duet, such as one between Bloom and New Testament-favouring Eliot, that he was after. Starting with his book Poetry and Repression (1976) and still manifest in his last book, it was the poetic duets of the biblically-grounded Whitman or Dickinson with every American poet onward that Bloom spun out in existentially religious terms.

So, pace Blake, it was not modernist supersession itself that worried Bloom but its grandiosities and self-congratulation, its lack of self-criticism. Ironically enough, however, Bloom overlooked the grandiosity in himself when he dismissed modern experimental duets. It seems quite probable there could be no Lorine without Emily, no William Carlos Williams without Walt, nor especially the experimental duets of modern poets with language itself, of musicians with composition, or of painters with viewers, much of it incomprehensibly dissonant to Bloom’s ear. He would attempt to compensate with gnostic theories of unrepressed vitality, and although he could filter Ashbery and Anne Carson through Stevens, the latter’s self-aware engagement with the psyche remained the crucial element for Bloom. Still, he had found his own way to read living poets in psychological terms, the ‘poetic misprisions’ (clinamen, tessera, kenosis, askesis, apophrades, daemonization – swerving, completing, emptying, truncating, returning to/opening up, displacing) that made up the literary family drama.

A contemporary of Bloom’s, the Jewish avant saxophonist, Lee Konitz, still breathing in Brooklyn, built an oeuvre riffing on standards, just as Harold would point out Walt on Bible, Emily on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Yet Bloom was circumscribed from the most anxious or avant-garde of his living culture, for him a seemingly adversarial post-academe. What could he do with it, since he had no creative practice of his own? Or rather, he strove to make his critical writing a proto-Kabbalist art of riffing on a canon that could be seen from above and included everything, even the Lee Konitz album Duets of which he was innocent. It was a striving constrained, however, by limited access to the quotidian that was a breakthrough resource for his younger artistic contemporaries. In place of the historical, poets Lewis Warsh and Bernadette Mayer, in their just-published (small portions appeared in the 1970’s) Piece of Cake (‘arguably the first significant male-female collaboration in twentieth century American poetry’) riff on an immediate history of daily life. Unlike earlier modernists such as Picabia collaging newsprint and Reznikoff accessing documents, they move in and occupy a dailiness that Proust ironized by retrieving memories (or that was called ‘the banality of everyday life’ in the Danish painter Hammershoi). As children of the sixties, they seemed to break down the border between life and art, yet Mayer and Warsh’s domesticated stream of consciousness can be gloriously deadpan (another term missing from Bloom’s vocabulary) just as the late British poet Andrew Crozier, a literary countercultural parallel, could inhabit an intellectual deadpan that was provocatively non-dry.

Bloom was unlikely to hear those riffs and thus would not fully appreciate the improvisation in Ashbery, and especially not in Berrigan, whose ‘Ted’ is in duet with himself. What had already been assimilated in the 1930’s as absurdist literature now steps beyond the absurdity of daily life and the human condition, and into a hyper-reality that casts the poem itself as absurd – though not forgetting that it is the tenderest form of communication.
What emerges as authentic from that breakdown (and it can resemble a useful literary nervous breakdown) is the poet at his writing table, anchored at the scene of writing, more human than ever. He writes in ‘Wishes’:
Wish I were walking around in Chelsea (NY) & it was 5:15
a.m., the sun coming up, alone, you asleep at home...

At home during the scene of writing the poem, Berrigan is not ‘walking around’, except in his mind. That Berrigan, the one walking the streets – who really embodies such flaneur behaviour elsewhere in this and other poems – remains marginal compared to the writer at his desk (who really is at the page’s margin, creature-wise, and is the truer subject of the poem). So what enriches this art is that it never settles for the poetic but rather assumes a poker face of playing for higher stakes.

At the time I did not know how to elaborate the context for Bloom to read such contemporary work. Collage and the quotidian, while basic to modernism, could become in the postmodern canon the very breath itself, pace Duchamp, from Olson to Berrigan. In a British analogy to the deadpan inferred from the American Objectivists or the New York School, and similarly attuned to painting, contemporary London poet Anthony Rudolf, an important tragicomic post-Objectivist in disguise as a European cosmopolitan, collapses the distance between art and daily life, text and ‘unwritten’ breathing, in his self-duet:
....it’s poems
written that are lost for ever,
unwritten ones always remain
to be found. Like Morandi
painting variations on
the same theme, it has taken me
twenty years to get the picture.

Here in ‘Found Poem’, conventional expectations of the poem are emptied out, leaving as residue the poet himself. Probably Bloom wouldn’t recognize that, just as it wasn’t the figure of Blake behind his poem that revealed itself to Bloom. More certainly, it was Blake’s mind, conscious and unconscious, his epic determination to see contemporary English culture in Biblical dimensions. And that was how J did it in Genesis, allowing Bloom to elaborate on how her mythic characters were purposefully modelled on her near-contemporaries, such as Jacob on King David, or Rachel on David’s daughter, Tamar.

Would Bloom be excited by the current Blake show and its accompanying catalogue? Naturally he’d miss more of the actual poems, the illuminated book pages, but if you could imagine a similar exhibition for J’s lost manuscripts of which he’d approve, it would also include chapters on how, nearly three thousand years ago, she was educated, apprenticed, her family life, how she earned a living, where she lived and in what circumstances, the ancient equivalent of artistic guilds, etc. Most crucial for Bloom would be her precursors among writers and scholars, and not only in Hebrew but in the ancient transnational classics. If any one of them had writers as original as J, it would have been evident in their own linguistic traditions, as we’ve begun to see in the contextual study of the Akkadian Gilgamesh epic.

What Bloom means by J’s ‘originality’ is that, like Blake, she (or if we remain stubborn, ‘the text’) refocused what came before with such forceful irony that it transcends the comic and infuses its sources with the principle of reality-testing. Bloom’s most significant education here came via Freud – though he’d later suggest the Kabbalah as a form of imaginative analysis of both experience and, in the voluminous instance of the Zohar, Biblical and Talmudic text. In between Freud and the Kabbalah (and the classroom textual analysis that was translated into popular commercial ventures, notably with Shakespeare) came the seminal The Book of J. Here is a scene from how it first took shape:
I recall a time when you lectured a conference of New York psychoanalysts on the many impersonations Freud suggested for the ego – much to their puzzlement – but now, among your several iterations of Hamlet, you posit that his ‘I’s’ are infinite, by which you mean unknowable, and that human consciousness is as well, in line with the contemporary fashion in high-end poetry. Do you remember how we came to my literary agent at the time, Lynn Nesbit, with the proposal for our collaboration on The Book of J? You were quaking with guilt, wondering if you’d be able to postpone the contract you were already under with Viking for a life of Freud. ‘Let’s just cancel it’, she said. Afterward, you were so relieved to not have to write that book that you kissed me. It was some time later you told me you had similarly ‘cancelled’ your psychoanalyst, who dared admonish you (so it seemed to you) to leave out lengthy literary quotations from your free-association during sessions.

Central to The Book of J was the character of the monotheistic God, originally named Yahweh, or Jehovah in English mis-transliteration. For myself, in answer to the existence of God question, I affirmed belief while I read, doubt when outside the text. Bloom argued further, for belief when reciting – as he could anywhere and at anytime, possessed by a prodigious memory. Thus Bloom transmuted the God question into the human question, namely self-creation, which took him from Freud to Shakespeare and Whitman as prime instances of originality and its influences on English-language poetry.

There could be no self-creation, however, without the original character of Yahweh. In his intro to American Religious Poems, Bloom writes: ‘Yahweh, in my speculative judgment, can be said to have (first) come into existence by saying I Am... Whitman palpably opposes I Am to It Was... [Like most North American poets who followed] Walt proclaims his presence but cultivates absence: he is sly, evasive, self-contradictory.’

Those last descriptors apply to J’s Yahweh in Genesis and Exodus, where the cosmic theatre of the unknowable heavens requires a covenant between unknowable Creator and his Hebrew-writing human creations. Bloom further boiled down the Hebraic cosmic theatre into an existential human theatre to accommodate English-language poetry (Wordsworth, a poet he left largely to his Yale colleague Geoffrey Hartman, is Bloom’s British equivalent to Whitman). Yet what’s left behind in the Bible is a more capacious sense of the unknowable – or, as Freud represented it, the unconscious. As I wrote about this to Harold within A Life in a Poem:
...consciousness has become the be-all and end-all of contemporary literary knowledge, even though the father of it all, Freud, was sceptical of marginalizing the unconscious. Today, consciousness has appropriated the unconscious within itself, along with a totalizing scepticism; consciousness is so enshrined, so honourable in theory of mind or art, that only the counter-scepticism of a neuroscientist – whose unconscious is out-of-sight, out-of-mind – worries it, albeit slightly. Clearly you have struggled to outflank any doubt about the supremacy of consciousness by creating a character of yourself, dramatized by your self-possessed self-consciousness, and you brilliantly displayed it in your lecture tonight when you faux-apologized for the ambiguity in a sentence you’d just delivered from your lecture’s manuscript: ‘I’ve looked at it many times, to see if I could clarify it further, but I’ve failed. So let me repeat it.’ If it had been a joke, the repetition would have killed it, but in this case (it really was a joke in disguise), by repeating it, it came to sound strangely indelible, as if it belonged in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs.

As became increasingly clear in his last books, Bloom’s own self-creation rivalled the literary characters he invoked, from Hamlet to ‘Walt’, though none so ineffable as J’s literary characterization of Yahweh. What had been an encounter with the supernatural devolved into the human psyche. Something crucial, however, had been lost in Bloom’s late psychology, something Blake would have noted: Judeo-Christian religion’s evocation of the unconscious – in biblical terms of the supernatural – had dug an even deeper literary well into the Homo sapiens psyche.

Finally, we might acknowledge as Bloom’s signal accomplishment that he raised literary criticism, as I’ve said, to the level of cosmic drama. His representation of the psyche as a contest between the self-created and its adversary, mortality, allows us to read Shakespeare and the Bible on an even playing field.

The newspaper obits noted that Bloom at eighty-nine, quite ill, had willed himself to teach his last class just three days before his death. It turns out that he actually missed just one gig, on the day before his dying, a lecture he was scheduled to deliver from home via Skype to a conference of San Francisco psychoanalysts. No doubt he would still have been testing his agon with Freud. And in so doing, Bloom would have raised both, Freud and himself, to the level of self-created literary characters, hence capable of surviving death, just as Oedipus and Hamlet are still with us. Better yet, even as resolved into a literary character, there is no question Yahweh remains beyond death, turning ‘death of God’ thoughts into linguistic irony on a par with ‘I am that I am’. We might say with Bloom that God was deadpan in this revelation to Moses. Although Bloom’s term for deadpan was ‘strange’, it likewise suggested that Yahweh was as immortally unknowable as the later Hebraic elaboration of him as unnameable. In the sense of strangeness Bloom cultivated, we might call the literary character he made of himself a transcendent reader, post-mortal. Thus he is only half-joking when he writes, ‘since I am two decades older than [Anne] Carson, one of my likely regrets when I depart is that I will not have absorbed her lifetime’s work’.

This article is taken from PN Review 252, Volume 46 Number 4, March - April 2020.



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